The fabulous Kanneh-Masons are a family of seven brothers and sisters aged 10 to 23, all of whom play either the violin, piano or cello.
All the children currently attend or have attended London’s Royal Academy of Music and its Primary and Junior Academies.
The family have gone onto great things winning many prizes and awards including Sheku Kanneh-Mason winning Best Classical Artist at the 2020 Global Awards and an MBE. The family have also appeared in numerous television shows where the five eldest performed at the Bafta Awards in 2018 and all seven appeared in the 2019 Royal Variety Show.
The most well-known from the family is 21 year old Sheku Kanneh-Mason MBE, a British cellist who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician award, becoming the first Black musician to win the competition since it first began in 1978. Sheku Kanneh-Mason also rose to prominence when he played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018.
Sheku reflected on his inspirations and influences with some of his main musical influences coming from outside the classical realm: “I’ve loved Bob Marley since I was very, very young (I remember growing up listening to his music a lot in the car with my parents) and outside of the classical world he’s one of my main musical influences”.
Aratrust welcomes Sheku’s comments encouraging young people to gain exposure in a variety of different fields and industries, especially those that many young people may not have necessarily considered or been exposed to. Sheku says: “I still think that the single most important thing is simply being exposed to music from a very young age. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where classical music was played all the time, but a lot of young people don’t get that opportunity to hear and fall in love with this music from childhood. What I always feel is that young children react to ANY kind of music in the most natural way: if you expose a child who’s never heard any sort of classical music before to an orchestral concert they really respond very instinctively, and seeing those reactions is one of the reasons I love playing to young audiences.”
In an interview with the Guardian in 2016, Sheku reflected on the current nature of diversity in classical music: “For me, my race has never been a problem; I’ve always felt that I fitted in in places like the Royal Academy of Music. It’s only when you look at the bigger picture and realise the lack of diversity that it becomes apparent. Ultimately, the classical music world isn’t racist; that would be the wrong way of looking at it. The problem is people not getting the opportunity to see it as something to get into. If you’re a young black child going to a classical concert you don’t see anyone who looks like you in the orchestra.”
Sheku went on to say what more the classical music industry could be doing to improve levels of diversity in its ranks, outlining that there should be more opportunities on offer for minority-ethnic young people, especially for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds: “I think it’s a difficult thing to change, but it’s a case of giving everyone the opportunity to access classical music. For a number of reasons, music isn’t given enough time and money in many state schools, so kids miss out. Hopefully me being from a state school, and the first winner who is black, and seeing things like the Chineke! Orchestra, will inspire others from similar backgrounds to see this journey as something that they could also do.”
Aratrust like others in the industry demand that the time for change is NOW, as damning statistics illustrate how widespread the issue of diversity is within classical music. Research from King’s College London highlights the ‘narrowness’ of representation in the classical music industry after it found that of 629 orchestral players across 17 British Orchestras, only 11 (1.7%) identified as being from a Black or Minority-Ethnic Background.
A report by the BASCA (The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors), now called Ivors Academy, reinforced the glaring lack of representation in the industry with their shocking findings that:
- 6% of commissioned composers are from minority-ethnic communities, compared to 14% of the UK population;
- Applicants to Sound and Music’s professional development schemes were 1% minority-ethnic;
- In the 50 plus range (an age group accounting for 38% of all commissioned works), less than 3% were minority-ethnic.
Aratrust welcomes the proposed changes by the English National Opera (ENO) vowing to make the opera industry and classical more diverse and representative of the society we live in. The ENO has launched several schemes to level the playing field for minority-ethnic musicians, directors and composers, including:
- a scheme to recruit 5 minority-ethnic string musicians for its orchestra on 12-month fellowships;
- recruitment of 4 new Chorus Fellows from a minority-ethnic background;
- 4 annual ENO Director Observerships for emerging minority-ethnic directors, giving them the opportunity to work alongside world-renowned opera directors;
- screened/blind auditions for the orchestra as part of its recruitment process which has been extended to auditions for the Chorus.
Aratrust welcomes the measures being implemented by the ENO but shares the sentiment of some of those at the very top of Arts and Culture that such strategies cannot just plainly be token gestures. Theymust continue to increase the diversity in the organisation’s workforce and audiences as well as continually engage with people from areas of social deprivation or minority-ethnic backgrounds, introducing them to Classical Music and providing much needed support to those who are interested in developing a career in the arts.
Aratrust echoes the comments of Claire Mera-Nelson, the Director of Music for the Arts Council England who said: “The Arts Council welcomes the next step in ENO’s plan to diversify its workforce. More needs to be done to address the significant barriers that Black and minority-ethnic musicians face in joining an orchestra and ensuring that it better reflects the society we live in.”